Nature and Nurture.

I have long been a fan of Steven Pinker’s books.

I have read many of them, beginning probably with his books on speech as he is a linguist first. This was probably the first as I was intrigued by his theories about irregular verbs and how children learn language.

He points out, for example, how normal construction in archaic forms such as “Wend, went and wended” have become “Go, went, gone.”

The child makes an error he or she may not understand that “Goed” is not a used form for past tense, whereas “Wend” is an archaic form whose past tense has been substituted. The child is using language rules but they don’t account for irregular verbs. He continues with this thought in The Language Instinct, which came later. Here he makes explicit that this is how the mind works. One review on Amazon makes the point:

For the educated layperson, this book is the most fascinating and engaging introduction to linguistics I have come across. I know some college students who had received xeroxed handouts of one chapter from this book, and these were students who were just bored of reading handouts week after week… but after reading just a few paragraphs from The Language Instinct, they were hooked, fascinated, and really wanted to read the whole book (and did). I wish I had come across such a book years ago…

Now, this is interesting but Pinker has gotten into politics inadvertently by emphasizing the role of genetics in language and behavior. I read The Blank Slate when it came out ten years ago and loved it.

Interestingly enough, it refutes, very effectively in my opinion, an earlier book by Stephen Jay Gould who is a hero to the cultural left. Gould actually became famous as an advocate (not the originator) of the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium in evolution.

Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria) is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and rapid (on a geologic time scale) events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.

This became an argument in evolutionary biology. The argument has little interest for most observers, including me. However, he championed another theory that has most immediate effects on social theory. Gould published another book, “The Mismeasure of Man” that became very important to the political left.

According to Gould, the methods (The IQ test and “Intelligence”) harbor “two deep fallacies.” The first is the fallacy of “reification”, which is “our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities” such as the intelligence quotient (IQ) and the general intelligence factor (g factor), which have been the cornerstones of much research into human intelligence. The second fallacy is “ranking”, which is the “propensity for ordering complex variation as a gradual ascending scale.”

No mention of the role of IQ tests in attempting to deal with discrimination against poor children in the 19th century that IQ was intended to correct. The same applies to the SAT.

This was meat and drink to the “Social Justice Warriors” who had the unfortunate evidence of IQ in their assault on merit and achievement as social goods. Gould even added a later edition of his book to attack The Bell Curve, a book hysterically attacked by the left in the mid-1990s.

The revised and expanded, second edition of the Mismeasure of Man (1996) analyzes and challenges the methodological accuracy of The Bell Curve (1994), by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which re-presented the arguments of what Gould terms biological determinism, which he defines as “the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.”

This was anathema to the left. Then Pinker wrote The Blank Slate which my daughter, who had recently graduated from college, refused to read telling me that I must read Gould’s book first. I had read it and had it in my library but she still refused to read Pinker’s book.

His argument is that much behavior is genetic, and not produced by conditioning, the ardent hope of the communists in the USSR. I don’t know Pinker’s politics and have never seen a political book or even statement by him.

The editor’s blurb on Amazon was not likely to soothe the left.

With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense. A few reader comments are amusing. Here is a one star reviewers comment.

Hated this book, it was boring to the ultimate throw away, my class felt the same way. I can’t get rid of it but I don’t throw away books, it is not alright, if someone wants to read it and form their own opinion I will be happy to send it to you.

One can only imagine the subject of that class. The reviewer is from Cambridge MA. Perhaps that is enough. Another reviewer is more enthusiastic.

And, why is Pinker interested in arguing against the above three theories? Mostly because of the fallacies he thinks they lead us into. For example:

– The idea that men and women are basically the same, and that they will develop into individuals with the same abilities and wants if we could only raise and educate them in the same way and if cultural influences did not twist them into different kinds of people.

– The idea that all races are basically the same, have the same levels of intelligence, the same average levels of abilities, the same inclination to be good or bad, non-violent or violent, moral or immoral, etc.

Pinker and “The blank slate” is all about busting myths. He wants to expose the comfortable (or in some cases, the agenda driven) stories we tell about ourselves. He believes that these myths do harm; that they inform and contort governmental and public policy for the worse; that they distort the ways in which we raise and educate our children; that they cause us to have unreasonable expectations and to interact with others in misguided ways.

I can’t find my own review as there are 239 of them.

Why is this important ? New events are pushing this into view.

One, the Social Justice movement is getting very aggressive. One of the objectives is the new city and the demise of the suburb. It is not polite to refer to the left’s ideal new city as “The Ideal Communist City” but it may be appropriate.

As is sometimes asserted by urbanists today, the new socialist cities were about more than mere economic growth; they were widely posed as a means to develop a new kind of society, one that could make possible the spread of Homo sovieticus (the Soviet man). As one German historian writes, the socialist city was to be a place “free of historical burdens, where a new human being was to come into existence, the city and the factory were to be a laboratory of a future society, culture, and way of life”.

Hence the enthusiasm for rapid transit, the demise of the automobile and high rise apartment living, even if that may expose residents to a few uncomfortable moments.

More on the Social Justice argument for mass transit.

Never ones to let facts get in the way of fantasy, some retrourbanists and media types continue to insist our mass-transit transition is well on its way. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias, writing in Slate, declared that Los Angeles is destined to become America’s “next great transit city.”

This view is echoed throughout retrourbanist circles. “The City of Angels is noticeably transforming. Our once car-centric town is becoming less car-dependent,” suggests the local LA Streetsblog, “Public transit is having a comeback. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructures are improving.”

Anybody who has driven on the 405 early in the morning knows this is nonsense. At 5:30 AM there are traffic jams. Like yesterday morning.

However, the new Socialist realism is creating difficulties for some on the cultural left.

Frightened by the growing weakness of their flagship theories, progressives on campus have begun to lash out. One of the biggest controversies was in 2005, when then-President of Harvard University, Larry Summers, was faced with a motion of no confidence after suggesting that innate differences between the genders should be a line of inquiry when analysing the gender pay gap. The motion passed, and it left serious scars in the academic community.

“Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?” asked Steven Pinker shortly after the controversy. “That’s the difference between a university and a madrasa.”

There have been no comparable controversies since then, but a stream of outrage continues to follow the work of Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen, Robert Plomin, Nicholas Wade and anyone else who investigates the idea of innate differences between persons and groups. It doesn’t matter how much they stress their commitment to liberalism and egalitarianism (which they do, frequently), nothing can calm their opponents.

The UVA rape hoax controversy has come along since.


11 thoughts on “Nature and Nurture.”

  1. Can anyone who observed animals while growing up in the countryside doubt the significance of genetics for intelligence?

  2. Another target of the SJWs is Jonathan Haider. I loved his book “The Righteous Mind” even though he seemed to bend over backwards to soothe or deflect the expected progressive backlash. His basic thesis was drawn from a body of statistically significant evidence that showed that conservatives have a much richer and more nuanced sense of morality than do liberals (and libertarians.)

    Essentially, liberals refuse to realize that tradeoffs are sometimes required between moral values. It is easier for liberals since they have only one or two moral goals while conservatives have seven.

  3. Pinker is one of my heroes, actually. I think his “ghost in the machine” is a bit gratuitous (and one wonders if he didn’t just feel peer pressure and didn’t examine the difference between a set of ideas that were pretty new in 1800 and ones that have produced some of the greatest movements, art, literature and . . . well, you get the picture). And when he starts pontificating at Reason, he sometimes doesn’t just move appropriately into ideas that need to be talked about but are considered verboten but sometimes also sounds a bit, well, like he’s just flipping ideas off. But few have so many ideas so thoughtfully put as he does.

    I use his definition of human nature – mostly what it isn’t and what the social scientists have wrongly said it is – as a counter definition – hoping to bypass some of those social science types thinking.

    One of my favorites, because it gets students’ attention, is his point that we use different prepositions for sex that puts it in different categories – we do this unconsciously and that is why new words can be put in and we know which category (they slept together; she slept with him; screw you; he screwed her – the “with” and “to” are powerfully indicative and why we all should be more careful than we often are about prepositions if we want to really communicate).

    His standard seems to be, look at what works and figure that’s good. (He’s a lot like Franklin.)

    He understands the power of narrative (to understand human nature, go to the Old Testament, he says). He understands that culture can be effective – look at how the rates of crime have decreased as culture has led our propensity for violence into more productive ways. So is “The Righteous Mind.” I drop parts of them throughout my freshman comp class but I can’t get anyone to actually do their term papers on them – they look at the books and stop. But maybe they’ll come back to them later. (They are supposed to deal with a controversy – well, I say, look at the responses to these. It’s a stupid idea – they aren’t ready for it. I always hope someone will be, though.) At least I’ve gotten them to look at the charts of violence through the ages and pointed to genetics and culture’s interaction. Combined with Fogel, I’m hoping they realize (as I only came to far too late in life) how just extraordinarily lucky we are to be born when we were and where we were – and how much we have to lose if concepts like Sharia Law take over.

  4. “At least I’ve gotten them to look at the charts of violence through the ages and pointed to genetics and culture’s interaction. ”

    Pinker makes the point that Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage” was nonsense. For example, Otzi, the Iceman was murdered. They did not find the wound (or mention it) until after I had seen him in 2003.

    Penetrating the body, the arrowhead created a 2-cm-wide hole in the left shoulder blade and ended up just a few centimetres from the lung. Vital organs were not hit, but the arrow severed a major blood vessel and damaged the neurovascular fascicles of the left arm, which must have caused heavy bleeding and possibly paralysis of the arm. The Iceman probably bled to death within a matter of minutes.

    In addition, a deep unhealed wound to the hand confirm that the Iceman was involved in hand-to-hand combat hours or days before his death. A recently discovered craniocerebral trauma with major bleeding in the back of the brain along with a skull fracture, indicate a fall or attack shortly before his death.

    A massacre site of about the same era was found in a valley to the south of where he was found.

    The same myths surround American Indians.

  5. >>Gould actually became famous as an advocate (not the originator) of the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium in evolution.

    I’ve done some reading recently on a period that geologists and biologists call the Cambrian Explosion: [Wiki]

    The Cambrian explosion…was the relatively short evolutionary event, beginning around 542 million years ago in the Cambrian Period, during which most major animal phyla appeared, as indicated by the fossil record. Lasting for about the next 20–25 million years, it resulted in the divergence of most modern metazoan phyla. Additionally, the event was accompanied by major diversification of other organisms. Prior to the Cambrian explosion, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years, the rate of diversification accelerated by an order of magnitude and the diversity of life began to resemble that of today. Many of the present phyla appeared during this period…

    The Cambrian explosion has generated extensive scientific debate. The seemingly rapid appearance of fossils in the “Primordial Strata” was noted as early as the 1840s, and in 1859 Charles Darwin discussed it as one of the main objections that could be made against the theory of evolution by natural selection.

    Prior to the Cambrian, mobile life was soft bodied, which explains why there’s little or nothing in the fossil record. There are impressions though, of organisms called ediacara (from the Ediacara Hills in Australia where the impressions were first found in sandstones) which were mobile, soft bodied creatures that swam the Precambrian oceans. Suddenly in the Cambrian appear all sorts of predators and things with legs and eyes and pincers and defensive armor. More importantly, virtually every major body type (Phyla) evolved or appeared at this time. Arthropods (trilobites, insects, scorpions, crabs, etc) and Chordates (spinal-chord creatures) are two examples. The Cambrian Explosion is the punctuation point in Punctuated Equilibrium. How? Why?

    The reigning theories are:
    * The vastly increased levels of atmospheric oxygen led to the ability to produce vastly more complex life forms.
    * The development of eyes.
    * The development of predators, which drove an evolutionary arms race.
    * A tipping point in genetic encoding ability was reached.

  6. More on the Social Justice argument for mass transit…Never ones to let facts get in the way of fantasy, some retrourbanists and media types continue to insist our mass-transit transition is well on its way. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias, writing in Slate, declared that Los Angeles is destined to become America’s “next great transit city.”

    The link points out that from 1980 to present, the proportion of mass transit riders has remained fairly constant, from 5.9% to 5.8%. It certainly hasn’t increased, as Matt Yglesias claims. In looking at the density of Los Angeles City, we find that LA City has 8,280 inhabitants per square mile,an increase of about 30% since 1980, which is approaching densities of older cities which have more mass transit, such as Chicago [11,864] or Philadelphia [11,379]. Los Angeles has a much higher population density than most other sunbelt cities. Dallas, for example, has only 3,465 inhabitants per square mile.

    Looking at those trends in densities, Matt Yglesias may not be that mistaken.

  7. “Pinker makes the point that Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage” was nonsense”

    It sounds similar to anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s studies of the Amazonian Yanomamo, which were unpopular with the politically correct crowd:

    In 1988, he published a provocative article in Science. Drawing on his genealogies, he showed that Yanomami men who were killers had more wives and children than men who were not. Was the men’s aggression the main reason for their greater reproductive success? Chagnon suggested that the question deserved serious consideration. “Violence,” he speculated, “may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture.”

  8. One more bit of evidence.

    Nearly a century ago, intelligence was the first behavioural trait studied using newly emerging quantitative genetic designs such as twin and adoption studies.1, 2, 3, 4 Such studies have consistently shown that genetic influence on individual differences in intelligence is substantial.5,6 Intelligence has become the target of molecular genetic studies attempting to identify genes responsible for its heritability.

    Here, we refrain from providing another general overview of the genetics of intelligence. We begin by noting three regularities that might almost be dubbed ‘laws’ from genetic research that apply to many traits in the life sciences. The bulk of our review highlights genetic findings that are specific to intelligence rather than these general laws.

    That is from Nature, no right wing or racist source.

  9. “The vastly increased levels of atmospheric oxygen led to the ability to produce vastly more complex life forms.”

    This was probably a result of the chloroplasts, which “conduct photosynthesis, where the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll captures the energy from sunlight, and stores it in the energy storage molecules ATP and NADPH while freeing oxygen from water. They then use the ATP and NADPH to make organic molecules from carbon dioxide in a process known as the Calvin cycle. Chloroplasts carry out a number of other functions, including fatty acid synthesis, much amino acid synthesis, and the immune response in plants.”

    This is why oxygen became a major component of the atmosphere. An equivalent development in biology was the Mitochondrion which is descended from a free living organism similar to the Rickettsia, a disease causing intracellular bacterium.

    There are two hypotheses about the origin of mitochondria: endosymbiotic and autogenous. The endosymbiotic hypothesis suggests mitochondria were originally prokaryotic cells, capable of implementing oxidative mechanisms that were not possible for eukaryotic cells; they became endosymbionts living inside the eukaryote. In the autogenous hypothesis, mitochondria were born by splitting off a portion of DNA from the nucleus of the eukaryotic cell at the time of divergence with the prokaryotes; this DNA portion would have been enclosed by membranes, which could not be crossed by proteins. Since mitochondria have many features in common with bacteria, the most accredited theory at present is endosymbiosis.

    They are the best evidence for evolution that I know of.

  10. Mike K, the point I may have communicated badly was the Cambrian Explosion is a good example of Punctuated Equilibrium. Long periods of little or no evolution followed by a huge burst of radical development over a few tens on millions of years.

    I wonder if societies – even civilizations – follow a similar model? Was the Enlightenment a sort of Cambrian Explosion for the West?

  11. hbdchick’s site is in your sidebar, but Greg Cochran’s West Hunter is not. You can also go to hbdchick’s sidebar for more on this, but I would recommend dienkenes, evo and proud, and gnxp. BTW, Whitehall is clearly working from memory and missed just a bit. It is Jonathan Haidt, not Haider, and his work is indeed fascinating.

    Nicholas Wade, once the NYT science editor, has been similarly been excoriated for publishing controversial material on this. He and Pinker are able to soft-pedal it enough to keep the torches and pitchforks away, but alert readers on the left are picking up exactly what they are driving at. It has been fascinating to follow this these last few decades.

    I don’t know what will come of it. Majority opinions in a field can change quite rapidly, though unfashionable ideas can hang on a long time, reassembling themselves after each destruction like some fearful undead. We might hope that the younger researchers in the social sciences are indeed taking note but keeping it quiet, careful not to ruin their careers but ready to move from 30% agreement to 70% agreement when they believe the coast is clear. Yet we do indeed have more than a collision course here. The collisions are already happening. One side says “these are the data,” while the other says “these must be wrong because the implications are unacceptable.”

    It’s worse in Norway. There is a film “Hjernevask,” (Brainwash) about academic refusal to even look at the data. Cochran is interviewed in it. Yes, there are subtitles.

    As the TV show used to say “The truth is out there.”

    [Westhunter is blogrolled here under “Gregory Cochran/Henry Harpending” – J.]

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